Tapachula, Mexico: From morning to night, Mexican banda music blares out from the dingy bars in Mexico’s southern border city of Tapachula where thousands of Central American women sell sex to fund their dream of reaching the US.
Rights groups estimate 30,000 migrants, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, are working in bars in shopping streets and red light districts in the bustling city near the Guatemala border that has become a trafficking hotspot.
This includes increasing numbers of women and children fleeing Central America due to the deteriorating situation, said Francesca Fontanini, spokeswoman for UN refugee agency UNHCR.
UNHCR figures show the number of Central American migrants seeking asylum abroad surged five-fold in the four years to 2015 to around 110,000.
The number of families, mostly from Central America, stopped at the US-Mexico border jumped 122% in the six months to April 2016 compared to a year earlier as authorities cracked down on security, the US Customs and Border Protection said.
“The majority [of Central American women] come with the hope of crossing the border, looking for the American dream,” said Adriana Rebollo, who heads the prosecutor’s human trafficking office in Chiapas state where Tapachula is located.
But while chasing their dreams, migrants make easy prey for traffickers on their journey north. Often poor and with little education, they are lured with false promises of good jobs in restaurants and hotels.
“Migrants are ideal victims for trafficking and prostitution because at one stage they have needs, a need to survive, a need to earn money,” said Elsa Simon, a women‘s rights activist.
“A female migrant is the most vulnerable. She has no support networks. She doesn’t know her rights.”
Lurking in shelters
Traffickers, called enganchadores, lurk in migrant shelters on the prowl for potential victims, often young female migrants travelling alone with their children.
At the Belen shelter, a poster with a photograph of a man reads: “Enganchador: Be careful of this man.”
Flor Maria Rigoni, an Italian priest who founded the shelter two decades ago, helps migrants and those who have been rescued from prostitution rings run by organised criminal gangs.
The shelter provides weekly talks about the tactics that traffickers use to dupe their victims.
“Despite the talks, some still fall into the trap,” Rigoni, with a long silver beard, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It usually starts with a trafficker befriending a migrant, showering her with gifts, kind words and offers of help to cross into the US and pretending to fall in love with the woman, even marrying her, Rigoni said.
“The new boyfriend takes them out for dinner, treats them well for a couple of nights … Then by the third night a car without number plates and blacked-out windows comes and snatches them away,” he said.
Over the past six years, Rigoni has helped nearly 100 migrants, mostly Honduran women and girls, who have been trafficked into sex work. But, frustrated by government officials, he is closing the programme in March.
“It’s a lost battle. If there’s cooperation with the state we can do it but without it, we can’t,” Rigoni said.
“As far as the government is concerned, trafficking doesn’t exist. They don’t follow up on the issue.”
Mexico says it has taken important steps to tackle human trafficking, including a 2012 law that punishes those convicted of the crime to up to 40 years in prison and a free hotline.
Rebollo said authorities have stepped up raids across Chiapas, leading to the closure of scores of bars and the rescue of about 670 trafficking victims since 2009.
But conviction rates remain low, of some 330 people charged for trafficking since 2009 only about 87 people were convicted.
“The hardest thing for us is for the victim to say she is obligated and to recognise she is a victim,” said Francisco de Jesus Esteban, prosecutor and deputy head of the Chiapas office.
Local campaigners say corruption, including police accepting bribes, fuels human trafficking and keeps conviction rates low.
“In eight out of every ten cases the police are involved in some way,” said Jose Alfredo Zunum, a lawyer who has worked on dozens of cases.
According to the US State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report in Mexico, “official complicity continued to be a serious and largely unaddressed problem.”
Not all migrants working as prostitutes in Tapachula’s bars are victims of trafficking but a blurry line often exists between those who voluntarily engage in adult prostitution, which is legal in Mexico, and those coerced into sex work.
Blanca, 45, who fled gang violence in Honduras, says working as a prostitute is the only way she can survive.
“I can’t get work anywhere else because I don’t have the proper paperwork,” Blanca, who declined to give her full name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“If I don’t work my kids don’t eat and I can’t send money back home to my family,” said Blanca, who charges $25 for sex with a client of which a female pimp takes a cut.
Like many migrants, Blanca had planned to stop briefly in Tapachula to earn money before carrying on to the US with her three children but eight months later she’s still here.
“I never imagined I’d be living in Mexico, doing what I do. Some of the other women at the cantina have been here for years,” said Blanca.
“Only God knows if I’ll ever make it to the United States.”